Born in Edinburgh in 1823, Archer entered the life school at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1840,until 1852. He first exhibited at the Scottish Academy in 1842 with the work The Child St John in the Wilderness, and became an Academician in 1858. His work typically consisted of scenes taken from literature or legend popular at the time, such as Shakespeare or King Arthur, featuring sumptuously dressed heroines and fantastic landscapes. However, he was also known as a portrait artist, and his skills were well received when he moved to London in 1860. Archer died in 1904 in Haslemere, Surrey, survived by his son and three daughters from his marriage to Jane Clerk.